My Surgical Mentor

Dr. C.E. Tommey

Throughout my surgical career of 35 years I had the privilege of observing and operating with some of the finest surgeons in the South. My initial experience in the operating room was as a teen assisting my Dad (Pop) with a few of his operative procedures. Those were the days prior to the explosion of lawsuits for medical malpractice. Although Pop was careful to not allow me to do anything which exceeded my skill set, I was unlicensed and by today’s standard unqualified to participate in any procedure. Pop’s permission extended through my high school and college years, and by the time I enrolled in medical school I was far more skilled in OR techniques than most interns and many junior surgical residents. I was certain of my career path from the first day Pop allowed me to assist him.

For the last 2 years of medical school each student rotated through the surgical service for 3 months of every year. We were taught the skills of sterile technique in the OR and were allowed to scrub, gown and glove to stand at the operating table while only observing the surgeons and their assistants at work. I saw all the surgical residents and many of the interns operating while quietly longing to have an active role in certain procedures with which I had personal experience. I remained quiet about my skills until on one occasion I was asked to assist an intern on an appendectomy while the resident only watched. I was placing sutures and tying knots faster than the intern, and the anesthesiologist Dr. Ronnie Lewis sarcastically asked me, “Hey you, where did you learn to do all that?” When I told him my Dad, Dr. Berry Moore had been teaching me for years, the doctor was astounded. The reason was because he was preparing to enter private practice in El Dorado, and he wanted me to give a good report on him to Pop. (Even though he had previously been pretty rough on me!) In the intervening years while I was working with Dr. Lewis, I would occasionally remind him of the account. His only response was, “I was just young and too cocky for my own good.”

During my 4 years of surgical training at Charity Hospital in New Orleans I participated in or performed several thousand procedures. I worked with at least 8 surgeons who were in private practice in New Orleans and countless other men and women who were in training. A few of them stand out in my mind concerning their diagnostic and technical skills. One of the best surgeons I worked with was Dr. Lewis Crow who was 2 years ahead of me in training. I assisted him on 8 to 10 procedures which were of such magnitude I never forgot his speed and accuracy of performance. He later had a surgical practice in Little Rock, and I was able to refer a number of very difficult cases to him which he handled extremely well.

When I began my practice in El Dorado in 1971 I was in the office of my brother Berry Lee (Bubba). I continued with him for 2 years although for the referral practice I desired this was not ideal. He was a general medical doctor, and it was not best for him to take time away from his practice to assist me in the OR. In 1974 I was invited to join with 3 other surgeons, Dr. David Yocum, Dr. C.E. Tommey and Dr. Bill Scurlock to form The Surgical Clinic of South Arkansas. That was one of my best professional decisions. In the following years we added Dr. Moises Menendez and Dr. Robert Tommey (son of Dr. C.E.) to our clinic staff.

Over the next 25 years I had the privilege of working in the Surgical Clinic with these surgeons who were not only accomplished surgeons but were men of outstanding character. I was able to either assist each one in the OR at one time or another or have them assist me on a surgical case. The one who had a greatest influence on me regarding my skill development and my interaction with patients apart from my brother Berry Lee was Dr. C.E. Tommey.

Dr. Tommey moved to El Dorado in the early 1950’s with his wife Clara and their children. He immediately joined with Dr. Yocum to establish their long career together. Dr. Tommey had trained in the Cleveland Clinic prior to entering military service for 2 years in the United States Army. He had no family ties to El Dorado but had connected with Dr. Yocum as a result of an earlier friendship in medical school. Dr. Scurlock joined them in the mid 1960’s after he completed his military obligation.

Dr. Tommey (Dr. Eldon) was a quiet man of few words. When you could engage him in a lengthy conversation he had a witty personality with an infectious laugh. One of the funniest professional stories I love telling involved him and his nurse Reba McDuffie. (Training A Home Care Giver, Aug. 2013) . I never heard him being critical of any person and in particular of another physician. Over the course of 25 years we certainly were eye-witnesses to situations and heard conversations which could have led to judgement and condemnation, but one never heard those words from him.

He was a tireless worker who was never late nor absent from a responsibility. One particular 4th of July weekend he and I were the only surgeons in town, and he was on ER call on Friday and I was on call for Saturday. We agreed to assist each other on those days, and it was the busiest weekend of my 35 year career. We did 11 emergency cases on Friday and 12 cases on Saturday! As I write this I am still amazed at our endurance. To my remembrance all of the 23 patients recovered from their problems.

His diagnostic skills were superb, and I frequently consulted with him when I had a puzzling or difficult diagnostic case. Often just his presence in one of my patient’s room would bring them comfort and peace because of his reputation. By far he was the best known surgeon in El Dorado during those years.

His dress and appearance was always professional and elegant. When we learned about tailor-made Tom James suits, he and I began purchasing them at the same time, and I always knew when he had a new one. Only a very few times did I ever see him in casual dress, and it just didn’t seem natural.

Dr. Eldon was a strong Christian witness, and he and Clara were faithful members of First Baptist Church. He was active in Sunday school as a member of The Men’s Bible Class and participated in many other activities of the church as he was able. He was appointed and served as a deacon of the church for many years and was elected Chairman of Deacons on more than one occasion.

His humility was characterized by a conversation I heard in the operating room while assisting him on a particularly difficult case. One of the experienced scrub nurses, Mrs. Gunter asked him, “Dr. Tommey, how do you keep from making mistakes in the operating room?” He replied, “By gaining experience.” Mrs. Gunter continued, “And how do you gain experience?”, to which he replied, “By making mistakes!”

Dr. Tommey lived a long life and served the people of El Dorado with skill and loving kindness. He retired from his surgical practice in the late 1990’s but continued working in the wound care clinic for another 10+ years. He completely retired from medicine around 2010 because of health reasons. After we moved away from El Dorado in 1999 I was able to visit him in his home on several occasions when Cathy and I were in town to see our children and grandchildren.

This past January 13 I decided to call him on his 98th birthday, and his care giver gave him the phone. Although it was obvious he was weak we were able to have about a 10 minute conversation which included recounting some interesting and funny experiences we shared for those 25 years. At the close of the conversation I said to him, “Dr. Tommey, I love you and have counted it a great honor to have worked with and learned from you all those many years!” His reply was typical and brief, “John, I loved working with you.” The next morning I received a surprising call from his son, Dr. Robert who asked, “Did you call and talk with my Dad yesterday?” When I replied yes Robert said, “He passed away and entered heaven early this morning.”

I have frequently written about the tremendous temporal and eternal impact my brother Berry Lee (Bubba) had on me and my family. There has never been another one comparable to him. But in field of surgery Dr. Charles Eldon Tommey was my greatest mentor in regards to surgical technique, and in the way to live life while treating others as Jesus would. (Matthew 5:16)

Dr. John

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